The Grim Smile

The pre-class rush is upon me, complete with additional deadlines for articles in various editorial stages, and so I haven’t been posting much. Although to be honest perhaps the largest reason for my silence is how gun shy I am about posting about Yali given how I’m the token Melanesianist on SM. Anyway, since many of us will begin teaching again, perhaps a quick post on pedagogy will touch on something that is on the minds of those revising syllabi and preparing for the fall.

I had the experience of a superb undergraduate education at a liberal arts college which allowed me to con my way into a Major Research University where there were practically no teaching opportunities and the faculty was very focused on developng grad students but paid scant attention to undergrads (this is making a long story short — I’m not knocking the college at my alma mater) or teaching graduate students to teach them. As a result I’ve been furiously reading through the literature on what makes a good teacher, subscribing to email lists, developing my own sense of pedagogy, and focusing on improving my teaching with the zeal of a convert.

So far I’ve conluded that the ‘mirrors for princes’ genre is pretty hit or miss when the prince in question is a college professor. I do have my favorites — Maryellen Weimer’s Improving Your Classroom Teaching and Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe among them — but a friend of mine who recently won a teaching award recommended The Sociology of Teaching by Willard Wallard. This weighty 1932 tome reads like the Annee Sociologique running berserk through the ethnographic richness of an American highschool. Chapter XXI, “The Battle of the Requirements” includes sections entitled “Cribbing,” “‘chiselling’,” “Responsive attitude as a technique of chiselling,” “play of social forces upon requirements,” and so forth. It has Mauss’s sensibility, but it’s as if Weber edited all the joie de vivre out of the manuscript. Thus in Chapter XXV — “Traits Determining The Prestige Of The Teacher” — we get entries on “stable domination,” “relationship of container and contained,” “institutionalized courage,” and, my favorites, “teaching mask,” “synthetic smile,” “wan smile,” and “the grim smile.” The last deserves quotation in full:

Those who live by controlling others must take thought even of their laughter. There are some teachers who think that they should never smile. They may be right, for where the moral order is frankly imposed upon students from without they will welcome any show of relaxation on the part of the imposing agent as an opportunity to break through. Sometimes teachers compromise by acknowledging the ridiculous with the grim smile, which does not simply mean, “I am a fellow human being and like you I find some things amusing,” but says rather “I am of course the teacher. But I am willing to admit that this is amusing. But do not forget that I am still the teacher.” … In this there is no artificiality, but the frankly ambivalent expression of both amusement and the desire to maintain order. This compromise of authority and friendliness is for many teachers, for all those who have not learned how to get the classroom situation back under their control at once after they have allowed it to take its own natural course for a while, the best compromise for classroom purposes. It allows students to see that one has a sense of humor, or that he is friendly, but it does not open the gates.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “The Grim Smile

  1. Um . . . just as a gut-level, moralistic reaction, I’m appaled at the attitude of the quoted text. It’s interesting though, in that the writer suggests that failing to acknowledge both his or her own immediate response to a given stimulus and the stimulus itself is a way to maintain respect as a teacher. If I were the student, I would probably lose respect for the teacher for failing to notice the obvious. I might remain well behaved, but I would take the information/perspective he/she tried to impart less seriously. But maybe that’s just me.

  2. This is a perfect description of the smile used by nearly the entire Bush administration! Cheney and Rumsfeld especially.

    I love the way it starts too: “Those who live by controlling others…”


    “This is the smile one uses when he feels that he ought to smile or that the occasion deserves a smile, or when he is slightly amused, but is in no case quite ready to let go completely for fear of starting a riot. It shows some real feeling, or a fairly convincing feeling that one has the feeling, plus the hope that everything will ‘go off smoothly,’ that is that a disturbance will not immediately break out, and some fear that things will not go off smoothly. This is the smile that the high-school principle puts on on alumni day. The principal has written some quite cordial letters inviting the alumni to return for the occasion as guests of the school. (Is it characteristic of teachers to have a greater facility on paper otherwise?) The alumni secretary has written enthusiastic letters inviting them to ‘come back and revew their student days, come back and have a whooping good time.’ The principal has read these letters with misgivings. The alumni have returned. The principal is afraid that they are going to follow the suggestion of the alumni secretary. He is mindful of other occasions when certain events took place which gave him no pleasure. Yet the occasion calls for a smile. He does the best he can. The result is the wan smile.”

  4. Having just read the excerpts, I am now wondering how I managed to get this far in life without recourse to such guidance! You must serialize this, preferably under the title ‘Instructions for Living’. A daily, or weekly’ reflection on correct presentation of the self. The next best thing to finishing school (i.e a place to develop one’s manners, bearing, etc.).

    Also on the topic of smiles, I think Paul Theroux’s exposition on the various smiles he encountered in China is also a good guide for certain expressions. Was it in The Iron Rooster?

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